Thursday, December 19, 2019

Language of Confusion: Gifts

Tis the season, right? Let’s look at where some gifts come from.

Gift showed up in the mid thirteenth century, I assume after give, although give doesn’t actually have a date of origin. Gift is thought to be Scandinavian in origin, like the Old Norse gift/gipt, gift, and before that is definitely from the Proto Germanic geftiz, from geb-, to give, from the Proto Indo European root ghabh-, give or receive. And of course that’s where give is from, just with different word tenses. It’s from the Old English giefan, give, from the Proto Germanic geban, which is also from geb-.

Now let’s look at a common gift that’s given (ha!): game. It showed up in the thirteenth century from the Old English gamen/gamenian, joke or play. It’s descended from Proto Germanic, from two parts: ga-, a “collective prefix”, basically a prefix that indicates a collection/collective; and mann, which means person. So a gaman is a collection of people. And that’s how you have a game. In related words, gamy/gamey is related to game, originally meaning spirited, then morphing to having to do with taste in the sense of hunting wild game. However, there’s also a rarely used definition of game where it’s a synonym for lame, i.e. a game leg. That use of game is not related to the others, and is probably just some sort of slang.

Toy showed up in the fourteenth century meaning, ahem, “amorous playing”, or sport. It actually didn’t mean toy like we use it until the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, not much is known about its origin, and it may be a combination of several different words. There are some similar Germanic words, like the Dutch speeltuig, which means toy, and the Swedish tyg, which means fabric, but we really don’t know where toy came from.

Finally today, how about a type of toy? Like a doll. Doll showed up in the mid sixteenth century, but back then it was only a nickname for Dorothy. In the early seventeenth century, it became slang for a girlfriend or lover, but then by the mid sixteenth century, it basically meant a slut. And then somehow when the eighteenth century rolled around, it was used for a child’s toy baby, and by the end of the century, it was once again back to being used as a term for pretty or silly women, so in a slightly more favorable light. Of course, if you try to use it on a woman these days, you’re liable to get punched in the mouth (deservedly so) for being patronizing. Wow, this word really went on a crazy journey.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Well, the origins of the Barbie doll comes from a doll in Germany who was dressed as a prostitute. (Saw that on a show about famous toys.)

  2. So, um, when the term adult toy is used, it's being used in the original way? And an, um, adult... doll... Sorry, my brain is going weird places this morning.

  3. So what you're saying is that cats really love mice.
    That hurts my brain.

  4. Hi Oneil,
    That bit about 'doll' is quite interesting... How it meant so many different things...


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